Reporting Sara Pelissero
Blame it on our Minnesota Nice. Sunday night’s latest episode of the “Next Food Network Star,” from the network of the same name, ended in a less-than-ideal way for our native contestant Justin Davis. The Minneapolis resident had his final chance to wow the judges and once and for all, let them know who he really is. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough and the selection committee (*spoiler alert*) sent him back to the land of 10,000 lakes.
The truth is, Davis fully admits to being more of a private guy — if Food Network was looking for more of an in-your-face, aggressive competitor (*cough* Penny *cough*) well then, that’s just not him.
Instead this stay-at-home dad said he’s somewhat relieved to be back home and away from the hustle and bustle that comes from being on a reality TV show.
Davis was nice enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about everything from his “Next Food Network Star” experiences to his favorite Minneapolis stomping grounds. Oh, and he’s much more than just “that guy with the cool glasses.”
So unfortunately, your ride with “Next Food Network Star” came to an end this week. Were you surprised by that outcome?
A part of me actually wanted that outcome. It’s so hard to be on reality TV, and something I really didn’t prepare myself mentally was that this is serious. They always say, if you want to win a reality show, you have to really want to win it. And that is really, really true. If you aren’t willing to just give everything day after day after day because it’s a long time. We got done with three weeks and I looked at the calendar and went, how can we possibly keep doing this for another really long, I mean, it’s endless and a lot of stress. So part of me was relieved, I was excited that I had represented myself. I felt like I was professional. I didn’t buy into a lot of the drama, and I don’t necessarily know if that’s good or bad but I felt good about it.
It seemed like the judges’ main concern that kept coming up was “who is Justin D.?” Why do you think they couldn’t get a grasp of your personality?
Part of it is probably just how the show works and part of it is probably me, and trying to find the right … I don’t scare easily but getting in front of that camera for those camera challenges, it turned the very, very confident, intellectual people into bumbling fools. So the whole show, it’s just trying to get yourself out there and trying to be impressive and it was difficult. Maybe I just didn’t bring it. That could be it. I just wasn’t able to get over what was actually happening and let loose. And that’s OK, I’m happy with having been on the show as long as I was.
So speaking of some of the challenges, were they as hard as they seemed, especially with those last-minute twists?
Yeah. (Laughs) It is. I remember when they handed me Reese’s Pieces Peanut Butter cups and then telling me that I had to make a savory bite for 12 guests in 45 minutes. And you just sit there and go, “Man, this is not how I cook. How are you people doing this and doing it well? I have no idea.” I am a lot more premeditated when I cook. I like to know in advance what I want and I can kind of decide on all these different elements I want to put together. I like to compose food and having a really tight time like that it really doesn’t allow, at least for me, it didn’t allow for creativity.
I think I did much better whenever we had more time. I think my food in the camera challenges was — I could’ve been better and some of it was OK, but I think I made good food in some of the star challenges. Except for obviously last week.
What’s an “average day” for you guys on the show, if one even exists?
It varies day to day but they kept us really busy. Mornings were early. It was generally dark out when we got up. It was dark out when we got up, it was dark out when we got back. Days were long and I barely even knew what time it was. There was a microwave in the kitchen that had a clock on it but I didn’t want to go in the kitchen because there was too much drama in there. I’m not going in that kitchen.
Yeah, I mean, not only are you asked to compete against these other chefs, but you lived with them. Were there some chefs that were easier to live with than others?
I don’t even know how I lucked out, but I got the three best roommates that anybody could’ve possibly got. It was the other Justin, Jeff and Juba, so I lucked out there because some of the other rooms … well, Chris and Howie and Vic over in the other room, I mean, I’m not going in that room. We were all, the other Justin was very organized so that room was pristine. So it was good, so it was like, ‘Oh, good, there’s at least a little area that’s safe.’ But for the most part, I’m a private person, obviously, it’s hard to be a part of something like that. We all made it happen. There were a lot of good times, too, it wasn’t all drama and anger.
Though, obviously the show loves drama.
Yeah, I’m sure it’d be a much more boring show if it was just us sitting around going, ‘Hey, that was pretty good, alright.’ It was like after we eat, let’s do this. But I mean, I understand. But like I said, for me, the drama was too much.
Are there contestants that you became close with that you’ll stay in touch with after the show?
Yeah, most definitely. I would probably keep in contact with all of them. I think we all feel, no matter what happens on the show or happened in the house, I think we all feel bonded through a common experience. Even Penny, it’s like, well, I can go ahead and say some things about Penny but other people better not. It’s like a little sister, big sister thing. I had to live with her so I can go ahead and talk about how terrible it was but you shouldn’t, because you don’t know Penny. There’s kind of that but most definitely there’s a couple of people — Juba, Justin, Jeff. I talk with Justin almost every day now.
You mentioned struggling with the Reese’s challenge but what was the most difficult challenge you had to do on the show?
I actually think the last challenge for me was the most difficult, which was the Fourth of July celebration with Guy Fieri. I just was totally not prepared for what to expect and I was trying to compose every little dish and make a plate for 200 people, or 150 people. I’m putting together individual plates and I see other people and they’ve got whole displays of food and I’m like, ‘Oh man, dude, why am I trying to do individual plates?’ And then I wasn’t able to stand there and talk to people and I think people were turned off by that. ‘Oh well, this guy he can’t even handle talking to us right now.’ But I’m so busy and I just want to get you food. I think that was the most difficult and obviously the most difficult because I was sent home.
What was it like cooking for big-time chefs like Paula Deen, Michael Symon and obviously Bobby Flay every week?
Often times, terrifying and other times really gratifying. I mean, Bobby Flay says something is awesome or just loves it or asks you what you did. ‘Did you use corn starch to thicken that pudding?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, I did.’ ‘Well how did you get rid of all that grittiness?’ And it’s like, wow, that’s fantastic that you’re asking me something like that. It’s completely flattering. So it’s both, insanely gratifying and totally terrifying. I made Michael Symon something I was ashamed of and he’s one of those guys that I look up to and he’s an Iron Chef and I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness. I can’t believe I’m feeding you that. I should’ve been feeding you something delicious or crazy. Like he loves that kind of rustic, American food and that’s the stuff that I love to cook, ugh, what am I doing? But yeah, you know, it all happened.
Were you surprised by any of the celebrity chefs, after meeting them in person?
I was mostly surprised by Guy Fieri. I didn’t expect to like him as much as I did. He really went out of his way to talk to everybody and just be open with people and I think that was cool. I think all of us were like, that’s really nice that you’re taking the time to actually be a person with us outside of what’s happening so I was wildly impressed with his ability to be humble. And I did not expect that at all. I was like, ‘Backwards sunglasses? I dunno, buddy.’
What motivated you to try out to be the “Next Food Network Star?”
I’ve always wanted to have a cooking show. As a young kid, I used to watch “Yan Can Cook” and loved that, loved that he could be so passionate and spread a message. It’s always been in my mind, you know, this would be something I could be really good at. I always liked being in front of the camera and I actually got behind the camera for a while, and was a video editor. But I got tired of that, I just need to work in a business or industry where I could move around. I have a lot of energy and editing wasn’t cutting it so I started cooking. But then I was like, how do I get that same kind of rush out of cooking and exposure, it’s a great way to get your name out there. That was a primary reason for doing it.
What were your reactions when you found out you actually made the show?
How are we actually going to do this? My wife and her travel schedule and my two-and-a-half-year-old needing a stay-at-home dad, it was just like, the idea of having to be gone for such a long amount of time was daunting. And it took a toll on me when I was there, I was always just wondering while I was there what was happening, you know, is everything OK back at home. That was really it, you know, how am I going to get this done but also total excitement. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m really happy that I did it.
Now, I’m guessing you know the final outcome, but who do you think deserves to win it all?
With the people left, there are a few that I think would be very good at it. Deserves to win is a tough one because we’re talking about my personal opinion. I guess, I mean, love Jeff, he’s so funny and I enjoyed him as a roommate. He’s a dad, he’s this Midwestern guy, I really think Jeff is fantastic. Orchid is also someone that I think is just a natural. She’s so beautiful and she’s so good at what she does. I love Orchid.
So you’ll keep tuning in to see what happens? Do you watch the show with friends at all?
I threw a party and then I went, ‘OK I can’t hear anything when I’m there, and I have to be able to hear.’ So I’ve been doing a twitter (@chefjustind) party. I’ve been really active on twitter during the shows and that’s been really fun, hearing people’s feedback and kind of being a part of this conversation that’s happening online. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen. It’s kind of funny I felt this sort of freedom (Monday), and it was sort of ironic that it was Fourth of July. Like ‘Oh, I am so proud to be an American. I just got kicked off a reality show.’ What’s more American than that?
Tell me a little more about your Minnesota roots — you grew up in Brainerd and live in Minneapolis now?
I was born and raised in Brainerd, Minnesota. I have a sister named Melissa and my mom and dad live on the Mississippi River and that’s about as Minnesota as it gets right there, living on the Mississippi in Brainerd. I’ve been living in Minnesota for the better part of a decade.
And you have a local food blog, Gastronomic Duo. What’s that all about?
That’s my wife and I’s pet project that we started working on last year. I got out of the kitchen to be a stay-at-home dad and my wife has an intense travel schedule so once we had our child, it was just no time for me to be in the kitchen so it was a way for me to keep cooking. We talk about our passion of getting couples to get into the kitchen together. That’s what the blog focuses on, inspiring couples to enjoy cooking and look at cooking in a different way, not as a chore but as something to enjoy.
So before the food blog, what were your restaurant experiences?
Before that, I was working at Clancey’s butcher shop in south Minneapolis, learning the ins and outs of butchery, which is just fantastic and I can’t think of a better place to work than a little butcher shop like Clancey’s, just amazing. The relationship with the farmers, the relationship with the customers, it was really just a great experience for me and I learned a ton. Before that, I worked for a chef named Bill Baskin at the Red Stag Supper Club. I worked there for about a year after it first opened.
How long were you out there filming the show?
I was out there for six weeks.
And now that you’re back home, are there places that you missed? Favorite restaurants in Minneapolis?
Oh, I’m a huge fan of everything Isaac does so 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa but I think right now, my favorite is Piccolo. I think Piccolo is just a fantastic restaurant and such a fun concept. I love the tasting menu and the small plates and everything that I’ve had there is just perfect. It’s very, very good.
So now that you’re somewhat back to your old routine, what’s next for you?
It’s kind of up in the air, like what is next? I’ve got all these ideas and options and right now, I’m just like, I don’t know. We definitely have some ideas planned to expand my blog and website, make it more interactive. There are some things that I’m going to work on to make the blog a little bit more exciting and add to it. I love our blog but we’re missing video so we’ll get some video up there. And I’m interested in maybe opening a food truck. It’s exciting that Minneapolis has brought that to the city and are allowing people to do it. For years, it was against regulation to sell anything that wasn’t pre-packaged, out of a truck. You know, that’s sad. And now it’s a phenomenon and people love it.